[Commonplace books: Thomas Farnaby, 17th-century]
About Commonplace Books
The history of commonplace books is a long one. Technically, it goes all the way back to Aristotle, who coined the phrase koine topous or "common topic," as a way of describing common themes or general arguments used by orators. The tradition of thematically organized commonplace books re-emerged during the Renaissance, and became a major part of humanist education, particularly in England.
The purpose of such books was to aid the memory and to absorb a kind of "arsenal"of general anecdotes, incidents, witticisms, curiosities, reflections, and (most importantly) quotations, gathered from one's reading in classical authors and sometimes arranged alphabetically by theme.
The meaning of "commonplace," then, originally possessed not the pejorative sense of trite or banal, but rather the sense of a shared storehouse of ideas treasured by a humanist culture. There is a wonderfully succinct description of the value of commonplace books in a seventeenth-century textbook on rhetoric by a London teacher named Thomas Farnaby:In order that the mind may not be taxed, moreover, by the manifold and confused reading of so many such things, and in order to prevent the escape of something valuable that we have read, heard, or discovered through the process of thinking itself, it will be found very useful to entrust to notebooks, as though to a storeroom for provisions and as an aid substituted for memory, those things which seem noteworthy and striking.
From this description, it should be clear that there is no theoretical restriction on what may be entered in commonplace books, although there is a kind of sensibility that unites them all. It is the freedom to quote, to extract, and to muse on a life of reading that has helped to sustain the tradition of keeping such books, even if somewhat secretly: there are commonplace books by George Eliot, W.H. Auden, Edith Warton (recently discovered), Thomas Jefferson, and E.M. Forster, to name only a few. The form is at once intimate and impersonal; a combination which, I think, should always be welcome, if only because it is so rare.
With this site, I am hoping to provide a convenient way to revive this peculiar form. The commonplace book is neither blog nor journal nor diary nor essay, although it combines elements of each. For those of you who wish to keep their entries private, there is no compulsory sharing of your entries; for those of you who wish to display yours, there is the option to let your entries be viewed by others.
Copying down quotations may seem slavish, but perhaps it can slow us down just enough to allow the emergence of some insight or sympathy that we would not have otherwise grasped. The rules of a commonplace book are, of course, arbitrary and self-imposed, but they are not therefore restrictive: they exist only in the service of freeing us to wander a bit more confidently, and serenely, in the labyrinth.
To create your own commonplace book and register, click here.